Sinterklaas or St Nicholas
By Wendy Hughes
For most children in The Netherlands, the most important day during December is 5th December, when Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) brings them their presents!
St. Nicholas’ day is usually on the 6th December, but in The Netherlands, the major celebrations are held on the 5th December. It all starts on the second Saturday of November (the first Saturday after 11th November) when Sinterklaas travels to a city or town in The Netherlands, and Dutch tradition informs us that St. Nicholas lives in Madrid in Spain, and every year he chooses a different harbour to arrive in Holland, so as many children as possible get a chance to see him.
Sinterklass travels with his servants called ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (‘Black Peter’) and when they come ashore from the steam boat, all the local church bells ring in celebration. St Nicholas is dressed in his red robes and leads a procession through the town, riding a white horse. Every town in The Netherlands has a few Sinterklaas helpers, dressed the same as Sinterklaas who help give the presents out.
Dutch children are told that the Zwarte Pieten keep a record of all the things they have done in the past year in a big book. Good children will get presents from Sinterklaas, but bad children will be put in a sack and Zwarte Pieten will take them to Spain for a year to teach them how to behave!
On the evening that Sinterklaas arrives in The Netherlands, children leave a shoe by the fireplace or sometimes a windowsill and sing Sinterklaas songs. They hope that Sinterklaas will come during the night with some presents for them. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’s horse, they will be left some sweets or small presents. They’re told that, during the night, Sinterklaas rides on the roofs on his horse and that ‘Zwarte Pieten’ will then climb down the chimney, or through a window and put the presents and/or sweets in their shoes.
In many families the children are told that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet make a weekly visit, so the children leave their shoe by the fireplace or window i.e. every Saturday until the main Sinterklaas party on 5th December.
The evening of December 5th is called St. Nicholas’ Eve ‘Sinterklaasavond’ or ‘Pakjesavond’ (present evening), and the children will receive their presents during the evening. There might be a knock at the door and if they are very lucky, they might find a sack full of presents!
Sinterklaas parties are often held on St. Nicholas’ Eve (5th), where treasure hunt games are played with poems and riddles giving the clues. Children follow the clues to find little presents left by Sinterklaas, and special biscuits and sweets are eaten at the party.
One type of biscuit is called ‘letter blanket’ or ‘banketletter’ (meaning letter cake), which is made from marzipan or pastry. The biscuits are made in the shapes of the first letter of their name, and another sweet biscuit eaten at these parties are called ‘pepernoot’ which are made with cinnamon and spices in the pastry biscuit mix.
On the 6th of December Sinterklaas (the birthday of Sinterklaas) leaves the Netherlands by steamboat via the entrance of the port of Rotterdam (Europe’s largest port) called the Hook of Holland and he travels back to Spain.
Surprise presents are also given on St. Nicholas’ Day. A custom at the Sinterklaas parties, often within classes at schools, is that everyone’s name is put into a hat and everyone picks another person’s name – then they have to make a surprise present for that person. The presents are often things that the person would find useful with their favorite hobby. The presents come with a poem inside that gives a clue to who might have sent the present, but it is all meant to be a mystery!
Saint Nicholas has always had close ties with Amsterdam since 343 AD. Legend informs us that Sinterklaas originally came from modern-day Turkey as St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Mira, and a respectable man who was kind to children. No one really knows why he chose to live in Spain but historians point to the Spanish domination over the Netherlands in the past.
The medieval attire of Sinterklaas’ assistants, the Pieten, is equally mysterious, leading to the conclusion that they must have been stuck in chimneys for long time – hence the sooty faces and time-warped costumes.
On Christmas Eve night, Dutch Children believe that Santa Claus, (who is also call ‘Christmas man’ / ‘Kerstman’ to avoid confusion with Sinterklaas!) comes from Lapland in Finland to deliver more presents!
Christmas celebrations in The Netherlands are separate from the visit of Sinterklaas, and Christmas Day itself is a much quieter day in The Netherlands, with a Church Service and family meal. Sometimes there is a special Christmas Day ‘Sunday School’ in the afternoon at the church, where the Christmas Story and other traditional stories are told. These are often the only presents children will get on Christmas Day because they have already received most of their presents on St. Nicholas Day.